Friday, 26 March 2010

Brethren 'neath the western sky

It’s not often that I visit St Thomas the Doubter, otherwise known as Mellor Church, nowadays. But here I am, in my best suit, for Harold’s funeral. Mrs M beams me down into a gap marginally less wide than me, in a pew that she has protected from all assailants.

Alleluia! Sing to Jesus!

Dear Harold: my fellow alto in the choir, back in the days when Doubting Thomas and I were more commonly on speaking terms. On and off for 10 years, I should think. I was never quite sure which one of us was off key, and Harold was too polite to say. Anyway, M2 – the most erudite of our offspring – says we looked like the old gentlemen from The Muppet Show.

I can’t remember when Harold first roped me in to load waste paper into the skip for recycling. Paper-loading is a vocation to which many are called in Mellor, and all are chosen. Harold commanded the operation from inside the hearse house where the waste paper had been left by parishioners. Now and then, he would pop out to say he had found another mouse nest, behind the cistern.

It was a good 10 years before I got around to asking Harold why he had organised a paper collection. Apparently it was to save up for the new church organ.

The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended

There’s talk of a spot of freelancing in Sierra Leone after Easter. It’s nearly two years since I was last in Freetown: one Friday I decided on some R&R at the Banana Island Guest House in the village of Dublin. With Mrs M’s blessing, of course.

“Getting to Banana Island is easy,” I was told. “You go to Waterloo, then Kent. Then take the boat to Dublin.” Working with other consultants, one is rarely short of advice.

Suleiman is waiting in his old Chevrolet 4X4 soft-roader, and gives me a big brown-toothed smile. He knows the way to Banana Island: nice and slow.

40 miles and two hours later, we park on the shore of Kent village. The yellow boat of the Banana Island Guest House soon potters across the strait towards us.

The brochure advises that the yellow boat is exclusively for the use of guests, of whom I am the only one. A dozen people pile in, and half of my bottom is given exclusive use of half of one of the two benches.

When we are mid-stream, the engine cuts out, and we sit rocking in a gentle Atlantic swell. Opposite me is a middle-aged man. He is a Dubliner (of the Sierra Leonean type) and introduces himself as O’Reilly. He explains that the reason for the crush is that tomorrow is the funeral of Ma Yele, Dublin’s matriarch and senior fishwife.

A dug-out canoe berths alongside. The top half of its paddler is thick with veined muscle. The dug-out is just wide enough for his tiny hips and legs, and four barracuda.

Mr O’Reilly’s shirt is somewhat grubby, but he tells me that he is a pipe organ builder, and works in partnership with Martin Denny of Jardine Church Organs, of Manchester and Blackpool. On his last journey to Manchester, he stayed in Chorlton while he dismantled an organ, for re-installation in Freetown. The church was so cold that he laid a plank of wood on the concrete to stand on, against rising frost-bite.

Colonials don’t seem to understand that God is a minority sport in the mother country. He wanted to know all about my church.

I remembered that we had a very nice organ in Mellor, so he wanted to know all about it. There was nothing for it but to phone Harold. “You’re joking,” he said, when I explained my circumstances, but then pulled out his stops to explain that the Mellor organ was one of the first of a new generation of modern Baroque organs and was built by Noel and John Mander, father and son, not Jardine Church Organs.

My $5 phone card top-up ran out at this point.

The fish are sold for about £2.50, and we beach in Cotton Tree bay.

Steps constructed for Portuguese slavers lead up to the village. I sit and watch the yellow boat shuttling to and fro between Dublin and Kent, each trip more rowdy than the last.

Passengers trail fingers and flip flops in the water. Empty rum and whisky sachets float in the wavelets. The blessed sound of drunken Methodists singing hymns fills the evening air.

Songs of praises, songs of praises
I will ever give to thee.

Harold Gwyther 
grandfather, teacher, engineer, scout and chorister 
April 1936 - February 2010

Friday, 19 March 2010

Stabilising the Banks

As in so many aspects of modern life, Marple has led the way in stabilising the banks.

We get to the root of things here. I feel it my duty to use this column to record my personal thanks to Stockport Council and HM Government for their foresight and commitment to putting our banks on a sustainable footing.

If you think back to 2007, you may remember that problems in the sub-prime mortgage market seemed distant and foreign.

I don’t want to claim any personal credit for bringing the problems of our banks to the attention of our Council, let alone to that of our Prime Minister. However, my small contribution to local awareness of the looming credit crisis was to rename the two goldfish that I had rescued from the choking swamps of the boys’ bedrooms. I named these innominate swampies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, in honour of two American financial institutions that were having some difficulty in staying afloat at the time.  Fannie and Freddie are now thriving, rather better than Goldfish Credit Card, which was swallowed up by Barclaycard in April 2008.

Stockport provided especially valiant support to our danbank, but when local measures proved inadequate, our Council petitioned central government for funding to put it on a sound footing, thereby ensuring our plucky citizens and businesses a safe homecoming in these troubled times.

So it was that, in November 2007, the Department for Transport of Her Majesty’s Government made an award of £3.22 million to stabilise Dan Bank for future generations. Yes, here where the River Mersey may once have marked the border between Mercia and Danelaw, Dan Bank is still the place for a Dane of substance to stash his or her hoard of Geld.

No sooner had Dan Bank been rescued than we received a Letter to the Householder at number 72, Mandall Mansions. Reading over Mrs M’s shoulder, I was horrified to learn from the Borough Engineer, that the Bank on which we rest was in imminent danger of slipping into the old Tan Pits below. Their plans involved a 50 foot high apple-corer, a very large concrete mixer, and a pair of traffic lights stuck on red for the next 3 months. They also decided to raise the height of the parapet wall, so our teenagers won’t wobble off it when they’re drunk.

It's a big one, John

I may have heard someone suggesting that a tanning would do no harm, but here in the Bridge, most of us take a more relaxed view. We look at the big picture: today’s carefree teenager is tomorrow’s carefree banker.

I digress. Let us also commend Stockport’s communications on the Dan Bank project. Every household has received not one, but nine periodic newsletters, each printed on recycled paper, in a natty poly-ethylene wrapper.  Our Council has provided not one, but two web sites. And a podcast. We have an Information Line phone service, with an answer phone facility and interpretation. Twits can even get txts. And when works are afoot, an electronic display board is erected by the Texaco garage, so that we know about any closures, to mitigate bank rage and avoid a run on the bank.

I feel confident that every penny of the £3.22 million dedicated to this 500 metre stretch of road is being well spent.  The Dan Bank Stabilisation project surely deserves an Award for Exemplary Effusiveness in Engineering. I will pass the idea on to someone who is planning a campaign called “ENGLAND NEEDS MORE NOTICES”.

Really, I had only myself to blame the other day when I found that the A627 past Dan Bank was closed due to road works.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Spoiled for Choice

When Mrs M told me that she was joining a reading group, I admit that I was slightly tempted. I’ve never been one to shy away from intellectual rigour, from the cut and parry of scholarly debate, so I was happy to give up an evening  to the ilk of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. And perhaps some of those nice Japanese crackers.

Then it occurred to me that reading groups might be a women’s thing. All Judys and no Richards.

We men don’t seem to be as groupable as women. This can give us a useful scarcity value: consider the few blokes who turn up for Liz’s Body Max gym session on a Saturday morning in the community hall overlooking our lovely park in Brabyns. They earn a modest celebrity. I’m not suggesting anything untoward, but I do wonder if they get some of the privileges afforded to eunuchs in a harem.

Anyway, Mrs M said that Bill and Ben were coming to the reading group, so that was that.

The first book was Russian and Impenetrable. There was much harrumphing among us gentlemen of the road and track. We all had different translations of The Master and Margarita, but apparently M&M is no more fun in One World Classics than in Penguin, unless anti-Stalinist satire (if that’s what it is) is your idea of drinks by the pool.

At times like this, freelancing is invaluable. I found I had an inescapable booking in Transylvania that particular evening. And when, of course, it was cancelled, I had a great excuse not to have read M&M.  So I scoffed the Japanese crackers, while we decided that M&M was excellent in parts and thanked our host for choosing it.

One of the attractions of meeting so locally is that few of us have to drive home, so the bibbers had brought plenty to drink. We didn’t have to struggle finding things to say about M&M, because we could fill any gaps with “Is there any red left in that?” “Let me get you another Speckled Hen. It was on special.” “So when did you give up? Have you tried this elderflower cordial?”

It was not long before eyes and conversation moved on to consider the promise of food. One of the founding principles of the reading group is that it’s not supposed to be hard work. The host just provides the title and somewhere to sit.

And maybe a pud.

Perhaps it was inevitable that the reading group became known as the “Pudding Club”.

By the time it was the Mandalls’ turn to host the reading group, pudding was the order of the day. I wanted a Spotted Dick, but we settled on those individual chocolate puddings with gooey innards that Delia made fashionable when the boys were small. Despite my protests, Mrs M insisted on making a fruit salad as well.

It’s been all downhill from there. Not so much the books (Fludd, Rabbit Run, A Settler’s Cookbook) as the puddings. Kitchen slabs crack under the offerings: Eton Mess, home-made cheesecakes, mousses, meringues, grapes... Even cheeses have appeared, including those modern ones, wrapped in nettles or speckled with fruit.

Where will it end?

Mrs M says it’s her turn to choose the book. So I shall suggest it’s mine to choose the pudding. Dead man’s leg, a proper jam roly poly, will do. A bowl of russets, for those on diets. And a wedge of Mrs Kirkham’s Lancashire, if I’ve been paid by then.

Of course I can do a roly-poly, I will tell Mrs M. There are instructions in The Tale of Mr. Samuel Whiskers: take one good-sized kitten, and roll him in a suet crust…

Thursday, 4 March 2010


Please excuse the briefest of columns this week.

I am sharpening my lance for various jousting contests. Ah, the life of a free-lancer.

Our big news at number 72 is that, extraordinarily, a crocus appeared yesterday, despite Bono's best efforts.

As Christopher Robin wrote